The Spanish born, New York based artist Pablo Garcia Lopez makes mixed media reliefs and sculptures which evoke hybrid forms resonating with Baroque imagery, biological forms, and at times Victorian delicate ornaments. His Spanish heritage, coupled with his background in biochemistry and Neuroscience largely inform his visual vocabulary and themes.
AS: You were born and grew up in Madrid where you studied Biochemistry with a PhD in Neuroscience. In 2008 you moved to NYC on a grant from the Caixa Galicia foundation to develop a project in the school of Visual Arts. Later you received a fellowship from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore where you got your MFA in sculpture. This is a very intriguing journey. Can you tell me a bit more about about it and particularly about the cross pollination of art / science along the way?
Pablo Garcia Lopez: Well, my path was a little strange, but I always find connections and continuity with what I was doing. I studied abroad in Florence for one year and that was important for conceptualizing the science and art interaction from ahistorical perspective. I always find examples of scientists and artists that are using methods or sensibilities that we usually associate with the other field. That division between science and art only makes sense from the perspective of how labor is structured in our society and the need of specialization and I also think that it has been very fruitful for our societies, but through education I find that it is essential to be exposed to all kind of knowledge.
One of the problems of the neuroscience of the end of the XX century and beginning of the XXI is that it became phrenological. They were trying to locate all the different attributes of the mind inside the brain rather than consider cultural factors. There are different reasons for that, for instance, that a great percentage of neuroscientific research is still done with rats and mice or that many scientists tried to put all the emphasis in the biological to get more funding (if mental diseases are located in the brain, then they are the candidates to cure them). But maybe more importantly, I think that many scientists ignore the importance of culture in shaping human minds because they have not been educated in those matters.
AS: It appears that silk has a pivotal role in your work. What drew you to this material and how do you see its significance in your work?
Pablo Garcia Lopez: I made my doctoral thesis using the original slides and drawings of Ramon y Cajal, who is considered the father of modern neuroscience and grew famous for his unique drawings that were like the first maps of nervous circuits. It was a mind changing experience in my formation as a person. One of the things that captured my attention besides the beauty of his drawings and slides was the use of metaphors in his science. These metaphors were what I called naturalistic metaphors. From Descartes, La Mettrie, Hobbes, etc. to the cybernetics in the XX century we are trapped in mechanistic deterministic visions of human nature that we can exemplify by the brain-computer metaphor. Although there are many neuroscientists opposed to this mechanistic vision, there are many others that defend it and take it very literally. I don’t want to extend myself in this topic but I think that this computer-brain model was not very useful in education.
The interesting thing about Cajal is that he created metaphors about the brain that grasped its plasticity and organic nature – the brain as a garden, the nervous system like a nursery garden. Among his naturalistic metaphor we also have the “neurons as the butterflies of the soul”. Guided by this metaphor I decided to start working with silk worms and silk forms. Interestingly before Cajal, another scientist, Gulio Cesare Aranzo, pupil of Vesalius and discoverer of the Hippocampus (area of the brain involved in learning and memory), compared the Hippocampus with a silkworm. There are many similarities between silk fibers and nerve fibers, from its fiber structure, to its delicacy and metamorphosis that I couple with neuroplasticity. Then, I developed ways of casting the silk in silicon molds, dyeing it, etc.
AS: Edwin Rivera fromthe Match Factory says that through your “unique gaze of the artist-scientist, the nervous system is baroque.” It is quite evident throughout your work that Baroque elements (both forms and themes), and in many instances Bernini in particular, are underscored. Can you elaborate on that in context of contemporary art?
Pablo Garcia Lopez: Thank you Etty for allowing me to clear that sentence. When you study the intimate structure of the nervous system (light or electron microscopy) you realize of how the organization is so dense, complex, and highly detailed (it is like biological ornamentation). In the dendritic trees you can also find fractality and the neurons are organized in highly conserved repetitive modules in all the animals. All these are also attributes of the Baroque. Then you have the material (silk) similar to hair sculptures like the Victorian hair jewelry or the rococo wigs. Furthermore, the baroque allowed me to make the connection with my Spanish heritage and with Catholicism and religion that are also other important elements of my narrative. This connects again with the importance of culture in shaping our minds, even the scientific mind.
AS: You have a vast body of work. Let’s take a closer look at two bodies of work: Silk Explosions and dioramas (2012-17) as well as Heaven momorila for astronauts (2019). What is the genesis, process, and takeaway in each and how do they relate to each other?
Pablo Garcia Lopez: Yes, there is continuity between these two pieces. It is an evolution from the silk explosions series. As I mentioned before I spent thousands of hours studying histological slides under the microscope. The most famous staining method is the Golgi method, a sort of golden, orange brown color technique to visualize the neurons. When you are exploring the slide with the microscope, you can imagine beautiful scenes like sunsets. My first intention was to create these textures and colors, so I had to use artificial light like with the real light microscope. I can show you some images now that you cannot say if it is neuronal tissue stained with Golgi or silk stained and lighted with artificial light.
I teach at SVA courses about Science, Art and Culture, including one course about science and science fiction. In this course we review from the Enlightment to Frankenstein, to scientific utopias that go off rails or some technological catastrophes, like Chernobyl and we also analyze how the Challenger, or the Columbia happened. I think from a construction sculpture vision, it is interesting to see how some accidents happened (a piece of foam, the freezing of the O rings). So, with this in mind, I was also working with light, and images of smoke, fire, resurrection and light came to mind to name this new series like The Heaven Memorials.
AS: in your video project Dark Brain you allude to both Goya’s war disaster engravings and electron microscopy imagery. What is the idea behind this project?
Pablo Garcia Lopez: It is very literal: PTSD. ar trauma. I am also concerned about the involvement of the military complex in the neuroscience field as president Eisenhower already predicted. How these advances could be used for dark interests. This serial electron microscopy is the basic technology used by the Blue Brain Project and the Brain Initiative. These are big projects that have transformed the neuroscience field. I would say that we have entered in an age of industrial neuroscience. These projects receive a lot of funding of public money and I fear this could be a boon for the technological, the pharmaceutical and the military industries. Is this going to bring benefits to our society? Or we will become slaves, victims, or clients of the new advances?
AS: It seems to me that your work hovers between free dimensional forms in space – like On father love me tender, or Wedding Cake ( 2017); and reliefs like Dark White series (2015-15), or the Silk Bass reliefs (2019-2020). What is your take on that in context of your development as a sculptor?
Pablo Garcia Lopez: I am attached to the bass relief idea. One of the first physical metaphors to talk about memory was from Plato. He raised the idea that memory might be analogous to a wax tablet into which our perceptions and thoughts stamp images of themselves as a signet ring stamps impressions in wax. I envisioned the bass relief as a symbol of culture and memory, not just as a cultural memory but as a physical cellular. I also like it that they can hang from the wall and occupy less space in my studio.
The wedding cakes are free stand sculptures and the large-scale chandeliers hang from the ceiling. There I use spray foam. I found it funny to use this cheap material to create baroque sculptures that allude to luxury and religion. The spectator’s interaction with these pieces is more physical than with the bass reliefs. There is also the gravity element in the chandeliers, like structures falling that give a sense of loss and decadence. The title Oh father…. is very literal. I reference God, my father, and myself. I was becoming a father and I had a lot of anxiety at the beginning. The sculptural process was very physical and meditative.
AS: You also have recent digital work such as Atlas of Neuroanatomy. What would you like to share about this body of work and how do you see its relation to your sculptural work?
Pablo Garcia Lopez: This is work that I made during the pandemic. I could not go to the studio, so I worked with photography at home. As I said in the statement, I am relating the physical morphology of the brain anatomy to relieves of churches and cathedrals. It is homage to Morphology and Anatomy that I think they are very connected to form and sculpture.
AS: Since the Corona pandemic erupted the world has been going through drastic changes. What are your thoughts on your work ahead in this context?
Pablo Garcia Lopez: It has been so strange. I have had productive moments and other more depressing ones in which I did not find any sense in keeping working. Besides the series of the Atlas of Anatomy I created another series of color sculptures. I have been also painting and I think that in some months I will have the first series of oil painting ready for the public.
All photo courtesy of the artist.
Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: firstname.lastname@example.org